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Sailing off into the great unknown

21 The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey Patrick O'Brian W. W. Norton: 140 pp., $21.95

October 31, 2004|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times staff writer who interviewed Patrick O'Brian shortly before his death.

Sixty-FIVE manuscript pages were all that Patrick O'Brian got on paper for his last novel. He died in January 2000 with the breezes of his powerful imagination just beginning to propel him on another far-off adventure in his epic serial of life in the Age of Sail. On the left-hand pages of "21" is the typescript of this short beginning of the novel. On the right-hand pages, the first draft is photographically reproduced in the author's own difficult penmanship.

Jack Aubrey hoists the blue pennant as an admiral -- "hoisting my flag, God bless us all." Friend, spy, ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin is in love, again, and a well-connected but disagreeable rival receives his comeuppance as only Maturin can deliver. The weather is fair and the suspense is building for the hidden dangers and delights of another grand adventure. But, for the moment, the Aubrey children have gathered, perhaps an expression of the author's foreboding.

The author jots himself a note: "I might look for pen-cartridges."

There is a final meal from Killick's galley, something about pineapple and pig.

Then nothing but unfinished sentences. Hanging thoughts.

This fragmentary conclusion to O'Brian's 30-year, 20-volume series has meaning only for the writer's avid followers. Newcomers should go back to "Master and Commander" and lose themselves properly in Volume 1 of this colossal historical series of novels of friendship, discovery, war, love and life in its vital onrush.

However, for those who made the journey to the ends of the world with O'Brian aboard ships of the British Royal Navy circa 1800, these 2 1/2 chapters are irresistible. His publisher and friend Starling Lawrence aptly describes them as an "intimate glimpse of this extraordinary writer practicing his craft."

That will have to do.

During his life, the reclusive O'Brian teased about his method -- saying he took a blank sheet of paper and started with Page 1 and then just carried on. His holograph and typescript show just how close he came to telling the truth of it -- his story going from thoughts onto the page virtually intact, with only rare corrections and minor adjustments.

To begin this short trip back in time is to remember that while Aubrey and Maturin sailed with the wind, their creator swam against the tide. He slowed his readers to a meander when others demanded that everyone rush. He asked for forbearance with jargon and detail, never mind those who said that modern readers had lost their patience. He took a wayward genre and showed that it could be lifted into the category of literature and could sell millions to boot.

He not only wrote stories, he affirmed the enduring place of stories in our hearts.

The great novel ends here, just as a man's life, in mid-thought with more yet to do and with those who knew him -- in the intimate way that readers come to know their writers -- wishing dearly that it had been otherwise. *

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